The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan – Book Review Repost

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am – it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Originally published over at booknest.eu — I’m archiving all my older reviews on this here blog, as it would be easier to categorize them all.

Sentence Structure # 04 Word Choice: The Sharper, The Better

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There is a difference between “Someone stole the priest’s thing!” and “The abbot’s lover absconded with his most prized Bible!” and that difference is owed to word choice. The more exact the words you make use of, the better. Words are the writer’s tools; you’ll want to avoid those with a blunted edge. Instead, you want your words to be sharp, to cut through the mind’s haze and shatter your reader’s pretty little heart!

Think of the last news article you clicked. Odds are, the headline was striking enough to catch your attention in-between the mountains of forgettable text the Internet is chock-full of. My last read? Pediatrician Seema Jilani’s first-person account of the Beirut catastrophe, titled: Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast. See how evocative it is? The words immediately call to mind the recent tragedy, while at the same time providing ample space for the reader to add their own association with the first half of the title. These are concrete words, which forecast the very real and horrific experience the writer — and hundreds of thousands others — went through, an event that will continue to define many lives for months and years to come.

The opening of the article proper does not lose any steam:

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast
Seema Jilani for the NYR Daily

I turned away from that article devastated, my understanding of the tragedy in Beirut now no longer merely the intellectual kind that a horrific tragedy happened which affected an entire city and its population; but the emotional understanding of and response to the plight of one family, and through that plight, the resonance that a thousand–ten thousand, a hundred thousand– families went through a visceral experience that has traumatised a society.

Hey, look at me breaking my own rule about sentence length. Back to the topic at hand…Such is the strength of concrete word choice; it is the most certain way of evoking the experience you want from your readers, and it’s among the most important building blocks in the writer’s toolbox.

Remove bland, general words from your writing unless they serve a very specific function in your sentence. June Casagrande puts it best:

I never want to read that your character heard a noise. I never want to read that the burglar stole some things. I never want to learn that your actions had an effect, that your CEO implemented a new procedure, or that your employees enjoyed a get-together.

I want loud thuds and Omega wristwatches. I want e-mail surveillance and sudden firings. Tell me that your CEO is cracking down on personal phone calls and that the accounting department held its annual drunken square dance and clambake in the warehouse.

Use specific words. Make it a habit to scrutinize your nouns and verbs to always aks yourself whether you’re missing an opportunity to create a more vivid experience for your Reader. This habit will open up a world of choices.

Chapter 6, Words Gone Mild

There isn’t much more to this topic, and the post can be distilled to the following advice from Yoda: Be mindful, young Padawan.

…Or was that a piece of advice from yoga?

Either way, vague words are the enemy. Cast them into the fire, and don’t look back.

Griftlands Early Access — Is It Worth It?

Early Access is so often little more than a grift, a calculated money grab intent on screwing the players over little more than a promising idea – but that has not been the case with Klei Entertainment’s previous games, and it certainly isn’t with the developer’s latest. Griftlands is an excellent roguelike deck builder with modular storytelling that you’ll be well pleased with. It has excellent protagonists, two sets of decks, and the kind of worldbuilding that engages with the player on a constant basis, which makes for plenty of moments of emerging storytelling. I’m eager to follow its development. References: More on Modular Storytelling here: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/David… Adam Millard’s “What Makes a Great Deckbuilder?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_gBR… ——————————– If you’d like to read the script for this video, please visit https://fantasy-hive.co.uk where I host a gaming column, in addition to acting as Assistant Editor! DON’T FORGET TO LIKE, SUBSCRIBE AND RING THAT BELL FOR NOTIFICATIONS! IF YOU’D LIKE MORE CONTENT… FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: http://bit.ly/2op2jmt

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Blurb: Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha. Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good […]

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Augustus by John Williams: The Will to Power (Part 1 of 2)

John Williams witholds the inner voice of the eponymous Augustus, born Gaius Octavius, until the very last. The first Roman Emperor remains among the most enigmatic figures in history, and Williams, too, keeps him at a hand’s length, his motives obscure even as the author’s other characters scrutinize Octavian’s every move.

And what characters they are! Nearly all of them based on real historical figures, rendered to life with daunting skill. But a few of these figures are Octavian’s three closest friends: Marcus Agrippa, Salvidenus Rufus, and the patron of the arts (and, judging by the emperor’s words, a bad poet in his own right), Maecenas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This essay is the first of two planned out, aimed to celebrate a monumental work of historic and literary fiction, a work both intelligent and empathic, concerned with “the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need” that Williams himself identifies as the conflict at the heart of the novel. This first essay examines Book 1 of Augustus, which follows Octavius Caesar’s ascension to power, his navigating the treacherous waters of a chaotic Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. His begins as a pursuit of justiceagainst his uncle’s assassins — or is it vengeance, or even a mere casus belli for the ambition of a young man?

Despite this, it’s not long before Octavian is forced to save one of his uncle’s assassins, Decimus, also one of Julius’ proteges. Here, then, is the first glimpse at the central conflict of Augustus. When Decimus, saved by the intervention of Octavius sends word to him in the hopes of conversation, Octavius Caesar’s response is telling:

I did not come to save Decimus; therefore, I will not accept his gratitude. I came to save the state; and I will accept its thanks. Nor will I speak to the murderer of my father, nor look upon his face. He may go in safety by the authority of the Senate, not by my own.

Augustus, Vintage edition, 60.

You see, then, how public necessity forces the young Caesar places public need before want; though whether it’s due to respect for the state, or to increase his own political capital during a time when doing so is of utmost necessity, is anybody’s guess.

The first part of the novel concludes after Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium. Success drips blood, failure gushes it. This is not something Octavius Caesar is unconscious of: “We knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us.” (140) So writes Marcus Agrippa in Williams’ fictionalized Memoirs of the very same, upon his recollection of that final contest between Octavius and Mark Anthony. The battle seals the latter’s face; Anthony kills himself not long after.

The paragraph quoted above is telling for the price of Augustus’s ascension. There is no end to the spilling of Roman blood in what was, in essence, the last chapter in a lengthy Roman civil war that saw its beginnings before even Julius Caesar’s star had risen. Many of the actors early on in Book 1 are driven by the notion of restoring the Republic to its former glory; Williams captures the political entanglements and atmosphere of the Eternal City through the letters of Cicero.

NYRB’s Editor at Large, Daniel Mendelsohn, describes Williams’ voice as “capturing both the wit and preening of Cicero”. Here, then, is one example of that wit, this time from a fictional letter penned by Maecenas:

We had heard the witticism that Cicero made: “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.” But I think that even Octavius did not expect the Senate and Cicero to offer so blatant and contemptuous a dismissal. Poor Cicero . . . . Despite the trouble he cause us and the harm that he indended, we were always rather fond of him.

61

This early actor in the political landscape of Book 1 does not last long, however, for a simple reason:

…the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; the the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the chall to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder.

62-63

Indeed, these early actors fall away from prominence as the novel moves inexorably onward. Even though many of the Republican faction survive to play a role in Book 2, the factional conflicts are overshadowed between Octavian and Mark Anthony’s own conflict. One of them is beloved by the people, the other has the loyalty of many of Julius’ own legions; both driven by the will to power.

Each of them, however, is possessed by very different qualities. Anthony is a soldier; a man whose own fortunes are built in the shadow of Julius Caesar. Followin Caesar’s detah, he viewed himself as the rightful heir of the power wielded by his former leader; but Anthony lacks the qualities of an administrator, as history teaches us when he took the position of Administrator of Italy in 47 B.C.; some of Anthony’s blunders are referenced by Williams on p. 51: “[Antonius] had defied the constitution once by entering the city with his armed forces…”

Further, Anthony is hardly a master tactician. Upon allying himself with Cleopatra and campaigning for her, he makes a fool of himself. Proof is to be found in the fictionalized report of Epimachos, High Priest of Heliopolist to Cleopatra: “[Antonius] fights more bravely than prudence should allow, and endures privations and hardships which would destroy the most seasoned common soldier. But he is no general, and the campaign has been a disaster.” (123)

Octavian, meanwhile, is that exceedingly rare mixture of scholar and skilled politician. Look towards the comparison between him and Cicero: “[Cicero] acted out of enthusiasm, vanity, and conviction. We had learned early that we could not afford those luxuries; we moved, when we had to move, out of calculation, policy and necessity. [My italics]” (62) These are good qualities in a statesman.

Octavian has the wherewithal to surround himself with capable men; though one of his friends, Salvidenus Rufus, betrays him in a moment of doubt, he leans both on Maecenas and on Agrippa; one a talented political operator, the other — a strategos of great skill. Anthony, by contrast, allows himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, a pawn to aid the Egyptian ruler’s ambition of a Greko-Egyptian line to overshadow Rome itself. A pawn that loses even the loyalty of many of the soldiers in his sworn Roman legions, forced now to stand against fellow Romans for the defense of barbarians (as the Romans viewed the Egyptians and their kingdom).

One man proved victorious, the other was vanquished. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, August 19, marks the 2006th anniversary since Augustus’s death. Join me next month, on the anniversary of Octavian’s birth on September 22, for the second part of my analysis of John Williams’ Augustus: “In Times of Peace”.

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

What’s this?! Gaming content on the Fantasy Hive? I know what you’re thinking, dear Reader — the powers that be must be mad to give me such autonomy! That’s right, we at the Hive enjoy all things fantastical and creative, and so it’s my great pleasure to bring you all some game coverage starting with […]

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

And here’s the video itself:

Check it out!

Saturday Star Wars: Obi-Wan and Anakin by Charles Soule — Graphic Novel Review

Welcome back, dear Reader, to the most glorious feature of all – Saturday Star Wars! If you somehow missed the last entry in my series of love letters to Star Wars, worry not – here’s your link!

A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Obi-Wan and Anakin by Charles Soule, Marco Checchetto and Andres Mossa

The ten years before the Clone Wars are a period only outlined by a throwaway line of dialogue or two in the movies — and as such, I expect they’ll make for plenty of one-shot stories such as this one, told in comics and novels – something I’m all for, as long as the stories themselves are entertaining.

Charles Soule is one of my three favourite authors working on Star Wars stories right now, along with Timothy Zahn and Claudia Grey. He has a love for the lore of the galaxy that runs deep, as deep as the knowledge he taps into in small pieces of dialogue that might fly by you without a second thought:

The Plo Koon line here, for example

The premise: Obi-Wan and Anakin have been sent to respond to a distress call on a planet ruined by internal strife, uninhabitable safe for the tallest mountain peaks. The twist? There’s a bit of a steampunk vibe to the two sides of this planet-endangering conflict.

I love how often our characters end up derelict on some backwards planet – didn’t the same thing happen to Maul in my last Sunday Star Wars column?

A pair of locals are introduced early on, signifying one side of the conflict — that I don’t remember their names might tell you something of the kind of impression they make, or it might tell you that I’m a forgetful old wamp rat.

Either way, I do remember the personalities of both, as well as that of their foe, a man by the name of…what’s his name, again?–a most lovely bald man with lovely face tattoos…

Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship is deconstructed in a way that will at once reveal the resentment of the Jedi Knight for having to take care of this boy:

The volume shows the depth of Obi-Wan’s commitment to his padawan, as well, in a short conversation with master Yoda in the very last few pages, which leaves no doubt as to the sacrifices Obi is willing to make to honour his oath to Qui-Gon, and to perform his duty to Anakin.

On the flipside of the coin is Anakin’s awe and downright idealization of Kenobi. Whatever resentment he might feel towards his master later on at the beginning and during the Clone Wars has not yet manifested itself; the young padawan recognizes that Obi-Wan is the very best exemplar of the Jedi Order, and for good reason — as the ending of this comic book will remind us.

As for the plot on Carnelion IV, I’ll not say too much other than…it was okay. The story is at its best when Anakin and Obi-Wan interact, and the adventure-of-the-week type story is more a backdrop than a breathtaking story that shifts my way of thinking. One action sequence in particular made me giggle:

Lightsabers are great with bullets, everyone!

Let’s spend a few moments to discuss the other key relationship in this graphic novel.

Surprising none but the newest readers of my scribbles, I enjoyed Chancellor Palpatine’s skillful manipulation of Anakin in a section that shows ol’ Palpy working to earn Anakin’s trust and admiration in ways fine tuned to take full advantage of the young Jedi padawn’s naive and limited experiences of the galaxy.

Here Palpatine is impressed.
Here Palpatine and Mace discuss the virtue of friendship, harmony and throwing people off windows.

Stepping away from geeky humour, my favourite sequences are on Coruscant, whether they’re between Yoda and Obi-Wan, a few short panels between Anakin and other padawans, or

Soule so well captures Palpatine’s sly, cunning nature. The Chancellor manipulates a young Anakin in just the right way, playing to his idealism, making of himself a champion of justice, while eroding his trust in a flawed, broken democratic apparatus. What’s best about it is, Palpatine doesn’t even have to lie; he shows Anakin the rot within the Republic, and his inability to do anything to remedy it on this occasion. By the end of this volume, Anakin is eating out of Palpatine’s hand, and the bond between the two has the strong foundation on which Palpatine’s plan hinges on.

The score for this one is 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed this story, though the conflict between the factions of Carnelion IV was nothing new, the relationships between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and Anakin and Palpatine, were well-explored and offered a layered view of some of my favourite lightsaber-wielding characters.

And lest I forget, the art was quite excellent — though Obi-Wan looks somewhat older than I’d have liked.

I also loved this alternate cover by Skottie Young, which is as glorious as any Skottie Young alternate cover for Marvel I have seen.

Skottie Young being the Skottiest, Youngest, Coolest Artist Ever!

A few lingering questions:

This girl is flirting Annie up, and yet he doesn’t turn around and leave the Jedi Order to live happily ever after with her?!
How cool is this cover?!